Challenge Accepted

Photo by Sara Shier Photography.

How Jacquie Cheikha perseveres through disability to excel at the sport she loves

From the Magazine

Close your eyes and think about how hard it is to ride a horse. Then think about how hard it is to jump 1.30 m. Think about how tight those turns are and how fast those combinations come up. Think about what it takes to win a jump-off.

And then consider doing all of that when you can only maintain balance and posture with one leg. You’re always aware that you could get jumped loose or turned off. That you struggle to walk and have to rely on information on your coursewalk from others (unless maybe your brother is there to give you a piggyback ride to show you around the rollbacks).

And then imagine that you can’t get enough of riding. That your dreams stretch all the way to the Olympics. Your parents don’t panic every time you cry out in pain; you tell them you want to be there and they listen. Your trainer doesn’t hold you back or play it safe when you want to go fast.

That rider you imagined is Jacquie Cheikha.

Cheikha, 17, was born with an extremely rare form of cerebral palsy—a chronic condition with no cure—that affects her left leg. She also has a Cavovarus foot, a deformity that affects that same leg as well as the arch of her foot. She has spent most of her life in physical therapy and struggles to walk. But she excels on horseback.

Photo by Sara Shier Photography

“Jacquie started spending time at the barn in her stroller while her older sister rode,” her mother Kim tells The Plaid Horse of Jacquie’s babyhood in the barn. “Anytime a horse would come near the stroller, she would reach for the horse’s head with her little hands and legs and pull them into her stroller, which is really unusual for a baby. Their heads were practically as big as she was! There was never any fear; she gravitated toward every horse.”

She began riding in leadline and then walk-trot lessons, and while she was challenged by learning to ride with a rare condition, it didn’t damper her excitement to learn. Moving up to Short Stirrup Hunters and Equitation, trainer David Bustillos taught her the basics on the well known show pony Dunkin Donuts. Without motor control of her left leg,

Cheikha couldn’t push her heel down, wrap her left leg around the pony, or get weight in her stirrup. While she was able to have some success in the hunter classes, she was not able to be competitive in equitation classes.

“At first David tried to train my position at home and we tried everything to keep my leg down and from swinging,” says Cheikha. “But ultimately, forcing the position to angles that didn’t feel natural caused me too much pain.” With a generous application of sticky spray, she kept showing in the 2’3” green rider hunters and equitation, learning her craft.

As Cheikha grew she was constantly trying to train her legs to grow correctly. “I couldn’t run or do anything with a lot of walking, and there was always muscle stretching and the pain that came with that.”

However, watching her brothers moving into the jumpers looked like too much fun to resist. Small for her age, it was hard to keep a pony well schooled enough to avoid taking advantage of her left leg. A horse seemed too strong and daunting to the adults around her. They were moving slowly and methodically to find the correct next mount when Jacquie fell in love with a new partner. He was a 6 year-old off-track Thoroughbred.

Photo by Sara Shier Photography

“We were in between horses and he was very quiet and just green, so David put me on him for a lesson,” says Cheikha. “He didn’t know how to pick up the right lead and didn’t know a lot, but he tried so hard, even from that first lesson.” She spent the next few lessons begging for him. Soon they were showing in the 0.70 m jumpers and struggling to slow down after jump-off rounds, especially on the left lead.

From this experience, Cheikha learned a lot about what she could ride. “Lazy horses are never an option for me because I can’t get one off my left leg very well by myself. Not being able to turn my foot out, it is always a big training test to get them to listen and keep them listening on course.” Using inside spurs and carrying her stick in her left hand, Cheikha needs horses very attuned to her hands and her reins to turn. She also learned to not be shy about grabbing mane or a martingale strap or anything she needed to hold herself up around the turns or rebalance after a jump.

A New Challenge
Everything changed for Cheikha when she was 13. After the horse she was riding bucked in a left turn, Cheikha fell hard. She landed on her ankle, which buckled, rolled, and fractured her fibula. Through many doctors and tests, they found she had broken her growth plate and tore her tendon. This triggered excruciating nerve pain. It took a while to get the diagnosis, and in the meantime, she was aggravating her nerve pain, making every step she took feel like she was breaking her foot all over again.

But it didn’t keep her off a horse. Cheikha continued to ride without a stirrup, tack walking in her cast. Spending time completely away from horses simply was not an option. During the process of obtaining a diagnosis, her pain would move around, so finally a doctor injected Novocain to start blocking individual nerves, not unlike diagnosing a horse. Finally, after many attempts, one nerve was injected and it turned out to be the right one. The nerve stopped firing and she was able to run for the first time in her life. This freedom was temporary, as the Novocain wore off, but knowing the exact nerve helped assist with treatments, optimal orthotics, and future options for relief.

During this time, Cheikha became more aware of her differences from other riders. With knees that point straight ahead and feet that turn in, Cheikha’s hips sit unevenly, causing back pain. At horse shows, she was unable to traverse the uneven footing, walk in the schooling ring, or walk or her course in the show ring. Cheikha knew that she had to come to terms with having a lifelong disability, and figuring out how she would adapt.

But it was impossible to ignore feeling different at the horse shows. “People would tell me that people felt bad for me and I wasn’t actually a good rider. That’s all I have ever wanted to be, so it really hurt,” says Cheikha. She was battling depression and anxiety inside, alongside all the struggles she faced on the outside. People started to make comments to her parents and trainer as if they were doing something wrong.

But everyone on Cheikha’s team rallied to make adaptations. Bustillos was the first to tell her to stop walking her courses. Mimicking a horse’s longer stride on course walks was causing much of the pain, so they decided to save her strength for the show ring.

Bustillos walked the courses instead, and explained every step to her back in the golf cart. He drove her around the ring to visualize any tricky spots. Everything became about saving Jacquie’s leg for the show ring.

When Bustillos couldn’t make it to the ring in time, Cheikha’s brother Jaden would walk the course and give her his notes. Sometimes he carried her piggyback around the coursewalk and around all the tight turns so she could visualize herself riding it. She kept improving, often warming up without her left stirrup, and always needing to be carried off her horse after a ride. Stewards would ask if something was wrong or needed to be reported.

The Winning Mindset
Jacquie started going to biofeedback therapy and learning to compartmentalize her pain. Her riding soared and she started moving up through the ranks quickly. She realized her mental game in managing nerves and pain was crucial to achieving her goals.

“I’ve ridden many of Jacquie’s horses and they are challenging for anyone to ride. It is very impressive the way she has adapted to ride very fast and strong horses,” says Grand Prix rider Kaitlin Campbell.

While she’s persevering through so much already, Cheikha has set a high bar for the future—she wants to go to the Olympics. She wants to compete with the best of the best of all riders. She believes in her grit and ability to fight her way to the top of the sport, no matter what she has to face or how much pain is required to reach that goal. She wants to be a role model for all riders and help people conquer their roadblocks.

She wants people to know how much their words can hurt or help a situation. She wants to be the future of our sport.

Photo by Sara Shier Photography.

“People will ask me if I magically woke up without CP or the limp or pain, how I would feel? And I think I would be disappointed because it’s so much a part of me,” says Cheikha. “I’m proud of who I am and proud of what I have put in to accomplish.”

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